On its 75th anniversary, UN missing from COVID19 action

Opportunity to regain lost ground


September 29, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

On its 75th anniversary, UN missing from COVID19 action

PM Modi addressed the 75th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) through a video message

In its 75th year, the United Nations seems to have lost its way notably in failing to get a global response to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to become relevant again, the international body needs to take the leadership at this critical juncture.

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Two years ago United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres flew into New Delhi to bestow the ‘Champions of the Earth’ award to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had won it alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. In 2015, India and France had launched the International Solar Alliance, a body to promote solar power in poor nations across the world which now has 88 country-signatories. Guterres showered the praise on Modi for forging the alliance and also for his bold initiatives in India for single-use plastic ban by 2023. He added that the UN in New York had taken a cue from Modi and banned the single-use plastics in the UN Headquarters immediately.

Modi is now championing another more relevant and yet ignored question of UN reforms. UN needs ‘reformed multilateralism’ is the chorus from countries. Modi used the UN’s inaction in wake of COVID19 to drive the point home. In his address to the historic high-level segment of 75th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) through a video message, Modi raised a persuasive question. He asked “Where is the United Nations in this joint fight against the pandemic? Where is its effective response?” No other issue could have been more telling about the urgent need to reform.

Since September 22, the day the special session began nearly every head of state has raised this vital question. UN now finds itself entangled in the archaic global management and operating structure that has not changed for the last 75 years when the world has seen a breath-taking transformation. No country, no community and no business has remained so static amidst the transformative 75 years.

The successes that can be attributed to the UN since its establishment in 1945 are mainly due to its convening power. Some of these include preventing World War III, striking environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol aimed at saving the Ozone Layer as well as framing the sustainable development in the actionable platform.

But, sadly, since the outbreak of the pandemic late last year, the UN has been nearly invisible and its convening power has been almost absent during the pandemic of COVID19 except for the World Health Organisation’s briefings that in reality kept on changing the causative source, extent means of spreading, medicines for treatment. In the 75th  anniversary, UN has lost the chance to be in the front line of handling an unprecedented global crisis, particularly for the poor countries that miserably lack the health systems to address the unprecedented shocks.

UNGA, till now, has passed only two resolutions ( April 2020) and UNSC passed just one resolution ( July 2020) which are directly related to COOVID19. In comparison, 17 UNSC  resolutions were passed on Iraq-issue before Iraq’s invasion started in 2003. Three COVID related resolutions were passive. They included expression of solidarity and need for international cooperation to fight COVID19 and open access to vaccines and equipment. Only one resolution was adopted by UN Security Council whose resolutions are binding as against the resolution of UN General Assembly which are non-binding. It was on ceasefire of armed conflict in c countries like Yemen to allow humanitarian assistance related to COVID19 to vulnerable communities trapped in the conflicts. Except for the handful of such UN interventions, each country has been to its own means in dealing with the crisis, let alone act in cooperation with the entire world to fight a common enemy and provide some assistance to other countries.

Besides testing, drugs and vaccines for Covid19 also need global collaboration

Some countries did better. India stepped-in to provide medicines to 150 countries, including the United States. Modi’s assurance to the international community in his UNGA speech that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis and that India will also help all the countries in enhancing their cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of the vaccines has been appreciated by UN and WHO.

China too supplied millions of PPE to several rich and poor countries, including India. Even UN-coordinated the supplies to 130 poor countries mainly in Africa and Latin America through its coordinating platforms operated UNICEF and World Food Programme, purely on donation by countries and the corporate world.

However, as against such unilateral and piecemeal efforts, though laudable, there is an urgent need to establish on a war-footing a planetary scale alliance and network of scientists and institutes to develop harmonised and collaborative short term assistance on medicines and vaccines as well as strategic research on long term measures to prevent and eradicate possibilities of an abrupt ambush on humanity from unknown biological enemies.

Indeed, the world already has a lot of experience on the cooperative and coordinated research and development by a group of countries that brought an end to the World War II but not before taking the lives of 50 million people and soldiers. That collaborative project, under a code name ‘The Manhattan Project’ had a secretive objective of developing an atomic bomb to make enemy surrender immediately. The speed of development was critical. USA, UK and Canada in partnership kicked off the project of research and development in the middle of the war. More than 150,000 scientists and technologists in nearly 40 institutes finally succeeded in developing two atomic bombs that forced Japan to surrender and end the war.

The lesson from the Manhattan Project is not about the development and use of atomic bombs to defeat the enemy. The lesson is about the partnership and collaborative actions to defeat the formidable and inhuman enemy with speedy and accelerated actions. That exactly is needed today to defeat new coronavirus.

The speeches of UN Security Council members and other countries over the last few days in a debate at the United Nations have with conviction outlined their support for collective and speedy action.

‘‘We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy,’’ says US President Donald Trump. Saying that the US has supplied equipment to ‘friends and partners’, he was determined thatwe will distribute a vaccine, we will defeat the virus, we will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation, and peace’.

President of France Emmanuel Macron decried that never we have been in such a situation where we ourselves are capable of destroying the cooperation frameworks that we built after World War II. France along with EU, WHO and Bill Gates foundation launched a groundbreaking partnership ACT-A, Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator. Macron hoped that ACT-A’s resources would be helpful to combat the pandemic and would be accessible to all.

China’s President Xi, categorically stated that “We should enhance solidarity and get this through together and launch a joint international response to beat this pandemic. When their development is completed and they are available for use, these vaccines will be made a global public good, and they will be provided to other developing countries on a priority basis.’’ He reaffirmed his commitment of providing USD 2 billion of international assistance over two years.

The more effective statement came from Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Had the countries been ready to join together from the outset to develop and trial a vaccine the world today would be different. Johnson wants to use his country’s presidency of G7 to develop the joint programmes. He mentioned the joint programme of virus development by Oxford and Serum Institute of India to supply one billion doses to low and middle-income countries. He stepped further and called for global collaboration to look ahead and think on how to stop a pandemic from happening again, through and ‘early warning systems’ for pandemic and ‘armoury of therapies’.

President Putin said the only way is to work together. He added that Russia is ‘ready to share experience and continue cooperating with all States and international entities, including in supplying the Russian vaccine which has proved reliable, safe, and effective, to other countries’. He has floated the idea of ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership involving all Asian and European countries without exception’ to fight coronavirus.

A consensus is emerging that never again must world wage 196 different campaigns within each country against the common enemy. G-20, G-7, regional groupings, partnerships with near and dear friends are all welcome. However, as intended by all P-5 on UNSC and other countries who have spoken in UNGA are ready to kick start global alliance of to eradicate COVID19.

Modi and Macron are the Champions of Earth. Now, they should join hands to champion the global action through ‘ACE’-Alliance for Eradication of COVID19. They should use their friendships with Trump, Johnson, Xi and Putin to forge the ACE. That would not only be the fitting outcome of the 75th anniversary of United Nations but the convincing demonstration of India’s global appeal that strengthens the response to his another question that he raised in his speech ‘how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?’

(Rajendra Shende, an IIT Bombay alumni,  is former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group.)



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